Buying into the culture war

Glenn Reynolds makes an interesting suggestion to Republican donors in the New York Post today: instead of pouring cash into ineffective old-school political advertising during campaign season, they should use their millions to “buy some women’s magazines… or at least some women’s Web sites.”

The average male conservative has no idea just how much political agitprop gets stuffed into the big womens’ magazines, like Redbook or Cosmopolitan.  “The thing is, those magazines and Web sites see themselves, pretty consciously, as a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party,” Reynolds explains.  “So while nine out of 10 articles may be the usual stuff on sex, diet and shopping, the 10th will always be either soft p.r. for the Democrats or soft – or sometimes not-so-soft – hits on Republicans.”  He notes there is no reason conservatives couldn’t play that game, too, and it would cost less than the crazy amounts of cash thrown into TV ads during the last few months of a presidential campaign.

This is one of numerous suggestions made in the wake of the 2012 election, sharing the common theme of encouraging Republicans to make long-term investments in cultural capital, rather than frantic last-minute margin calls on political capital.  Others have encouraged the financing of more conservative publishing, Internet, television, and cinematic ventures.  It won’t be easy to recapture this cultural territory from the Left – it took them decades to establish their near-monopoly on cultural media space – but if the efforts are launched immediately, they could bear some fruit by 2016.

Cultural battles are fought before political contests, and as we saw in 2012, they largely pre-determine the outcome of elections.  Big-money Republican donors were fighting a battle they mistakenly believe was joined after the GOP primary concluded, but in truth some vital terrain was lost long before the primaries even began.  Elections are tactical exercises, featuring battleground maps that cover individual consistencies and geographic regions.  But the culture wars are about long-term strategy – the vital moves which occur before the first electoral shot is fired.

“This kind of thing adds up, especially among low-information voters,” Reynolds says of women’s magazine propaganda.  “They may not know or care much about the specifics, but this theme, repeated over and over again, sends a message: Democrats are cool, and Republicans are uncool – and if you vote for them, you???re uncool, too.”  This is broadly applicable to all efforts at shaping the political battlespace through culture.  It’s about shaping attitudes, which affect the way information is sought and processed.

That’s why elections have devolved into contests of personality for many voters, and not just the hard-core partisans who know the other side’s candidate will be the Devil, long before the first primary is held.  A lot of theoretically persuadable people view elections largely in terms of personality as well.  That’s why the “likability” metric has become so crucial in gauging election outcomes.  Mitt Romney dramatically closed his “likability” gap with Barack Obama during the campaign.. and lost the election by roughly the same small number of percentage points he still lagged behind.

This is a feature of socialism, not a bug.  You’ll notice that collectivist leaders around the world always cultivate thriving cults of personality.  When every area of life becomes politicized, and political conversations are filled with elaborate terminology laced with virtually incomprehensible numbers, voters aren’t going to rush out and master macro-economics, or learn how to do math with ten-figure sums.  They’re going to decide which candidate they like more, and trust him to get everything right on their behalf.  Or, perhaps more pertinently given the nature of the 2012 contest, they’re going to back away from the candidate they dislike, and therefore distrust.  Those eyebrow-raising 100-percent-Obama voting districts in the 2012 election were cultural achievements, not the result of successful political arguments.

It’s very difficult to re-define the terms of such an engagement in just a few short months, especially since so much of the “news” media is energetically working for the other side.  Politicizing culture sometimes seems repulsive or unfair to conservatives.  We need to get over that, because the other side does it every day, in countless ways.  Those low-information voters tend to be very high consumers of popular culture.  Sometimes it’s the only medium for effectively communicating with them.  Better to spend a hundred million dollars on that pursuit right now, than on a hundred TV ads they’ll ignore in the fall of 2016.